Art, Watches, and Jewelry Collide at Art Basel Miami Beach

I spent two days in Miami last week for a series of events tied to Art Basel and came away feeling shell-shocked. What a scene! From the Maseratis and Bugattis cruising Collins Avenue on South Beach to the models and actors who crowded the parties, all legs and Louboutins, to the art itself—ubiquitous, beguiling, and (mostly) mystifying—the city throbbed with a chaotic energy that was so over the top I hesitate to say if I’ll return. Too much of a good thing is, well, too much. 

Which isn’t to say I’m not grateful for the experience (one sleepless red-eye flight from LAX to MIA notwithstanding). I was curious to understand why so many jewelers and watchmakers flock to the fair. It’s clear that the city transforms into a global hub of art, commerce, and fashion during this one week in December, drawing the kind of tastemakers and wealthy collectors that make our industry go ’round, but I wanted to see the scene for myself.

I arrived Wednesday morning and dove straight into a press conference at the W South Beach for the Swiss watch brand IWC Schaffhausen, which spared no expense in introducing its new Portofino Midsize Collection of 37 mm diamond-set timepieces to the moneyed masses. The brand’s CEO, Georges Kern, was on hand to celebrate the launch, which saw the unveiling of an exhibit of black-and-white photographs by Peter Lindbergh depicting friends of the brand Cate Blanchett, Emily Blunt, and Karolina Kurkova, among others, cavorting on the seaside in Portofino, Italy, dressed in tuxedos to underscore the collection’s blend of masculine and feminine identities.

IWC CEO Georges Kern and supermodel Karolina Kurkova at a press conference touting the brand’s new Portofino Midsize collection at the W South Beach during Art Basel

“We were thinking about a real women’s line, much smaller, but I think you have to be faithful to the brand,” Kern said, noting that for years, IWC has touted itself as “engineered for men.” “We didn’t want to call it a ladies line.”

Courtesy IWC Schaffhausen

The Portofino Midsize Automatic from IWC has a 37 mm round case; the brand declined to call it a ladies watch, preferring the more androgynous-sounding midsize label.

That night, before returning to the W to attend a gala dinner for the collection (emceed, as I would soon discover, by none other than George Costanza, er, Jason Alexander), I had drinks with the designer Walter Adler Chefitz, whom I’ve known since he won our first ever JCK Rock Star competition in 2012. He and his lovely wife, Adena, live about a half hour south of Miami, in Pinecrest, where they farm tropical fruits to sell at their local farmer’s market.

Their idyllic life has lately included a venture into wearable technology: Walt has been working with a company called Viawear to design a high-end version of a notification bracelet, dubbed Tyia. Enabled with Bluetooth technology, the sterling silver and diamond bracelet features the zigzag motif that is Walt’s signature, and a quartz window lights up in various colors and/or buzzes when calls from people on a custom-filtered list come through.

“The jewelry is made in Mexico City by the same jeweler who makes my collection, the stone is cut in Idar-Oberstein by the same gem cutter who cuts my collection. The stone is made of semiprecious quartz fused with mother-of-pearl with an RGB behind it, so you can have 256 different colored stones—you can change your color—the electronics and all the engineers are all in Portland, Ore., and the leather is sourced from Florida,” Chefitz said.

I was impressed! The wearable is stylish and discreet. It’s due out next year. Look for more on Tyia in one of JCK’s upcoming issues!

Walt Adler’s high-end version of the Tyia smart bracelet, in sterling silver and diamonds, with Adena in the background, wearing the basic gold-plated version

When Walt, Adena, and I caught up at the Setai, we unwittingly crashed a party feting a French-born, Shanghai-based artist named Christian de Laubadere, whose specialty is paintings that feature the elaborate braids and hairstyles of Asian women. As gale-force winds whipped around us, we giggled over the free Champagne and hors d’oeuvres that came our way. Then, an older gentleman led a very beautiful and very leggy girl with long dark braids across a plank positioned beside us leading to a platform in the middle of the shallow pool that dominated the Setai atrium. After watching him set up a chair and begin to braid the girl’s hair, we realized the man was Laubadare, and that this was a performance piece tied to the hotel’s 10th anniversary.

Adena and Walter Chefitz and me at the Setai, with Christian de Laubadere’s hair-braiding art performance in the background

That’s when we noticed the paintings that hung on the walls of the atrium: Laubadere’s ladies, the backs of their heads painted and decorated with fabric and real-life jewels, from pearls to turquoise to shells. The artwork looked familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure why (more on this below).

After saying goodbye to Walt and Adena, I strolled over to the W for Wednesday night’s star-studded IWC party. From my perch at the press table, adjacent to where the A-listers sat—including Emily Blunt, James Marsden, and Martina Navratilova—I could survey the room. So this was Art Basel? I understood why the watch brands were there—they hoped to capitalize on the city’s nexus of art and commerce—but so far, I had mostly been a witness to the commerce. Where was the art?

Getty Images for IWC

Emcee Jason Alexander and actress Emily Blunt attended IWC Schaffhausen’s Timeless Portofino gala dinner during Art Basel Miami Beach to mark the launch of the new Portofino Midsize collection.

The next day, I found the answer to my question. The Swiss brand Audemars Piguet, a sponsor of Art Basel Miami Beach, had invited me to attend a press conference touting its support of Theo Jansen, a fascinating Dutch artist who has devoted his life to creating a series of mechanical creatures known as Strandbeests. Made out of plastic yellow tubes, the creatures can walk of their own volition using energy that’s been stored and released inside the tubes.

Photo by Theo Jansen, courtesy Audemars Piguet

Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest, Animaris Suspendisse

The creatures have been placed alongside a stretch of beach between the W and Setai in a compound where Jansen spoke to the gathered journalists about his inspiration. A panel discussion with Audemars Piguet historian Michael Friedman made clear the connection to watchmaking. 

“In the spring, I visited Theo in Holland and was able to go the factory to see the exhibition,” Friedman said. “We were able to engage in a very technical conversation about how they stored energy, how they released energy, how they regulated—all questions that are central to watchmaking. I was able to tease out these threads, these connections. But at the same time, I was interested in the fantastical elements. I started looking not at the Strandbeests but looking at everyone’s faces. The word awe comes to mind. It’s the sound we make when our jaw opens up naturally—awww.”

Indeed, Jansen’s mechanical wizardry is something to behold. If his work is considered art, couldn’t you argue that what Audemars Piguet and similar prestige watchmakers do is, as well?

I left the beach and walked over to the Miami Beach Convention Center to walk the Art Basel fair and admire original multimillion-dollar artwork by the likes of Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, and Damien Hirst. Not a single jeweler in sight. Well—unless you count my friend Rolf von Bueren, founder of the Bangkok-based jewelry and home decor brand Lotus Arts de Vivre, who was at the fair and took some time for a long-overdue catch-up with me. I mentioned the chance sighting at the Setai to him, and he reminded me that I’d seen Laubadere’s paintings at the Lotus gallery in Bangkok on my last visit there two years ago. What’s more, Rolf didn’t know that Laubadere was in town and wanted to see him, so I walked him over to the Setai to take a look at the artwork and inquire about the artist’s whereabouts.

I was beginning to understand why Art Basel Miami Beach attracts so many scenesters. With so many people crammed into such a small area, you’re bound to have moments of serendipity.

On Thursday evening, I taxied over to the deluxe Miami Design District to attend a WSJ cocktail party at the new Palm Court shopping center—a dreamy luxury shopping location that has attracted the heavy hitters in the watch industry. IWC and Hublot had just opened their boutiques; Audemars Piguet and Panerai were coming. Plenty of others were already there.

I concluded my blitz through Miami at 10 that night, when I returned to South Beach for a late dinner (my second of the evening) with one of my favorite people, the jewelry designer Katey Brunini, artist in residence for Art Basel Miami Beach 2014 at the Betsy-South Beach. She presided over four vitrines showcasing her boldest work, including a raven necklace carved from jet, a substantial butterfly ring with tourmaline wings, and her award-winning Robotic Heart necklace, centered on a 1,300 ct. opal powered by LED technology.

Now here was a mega-size wearable that I could stand behind!

A showcase at the Betsy-South Beach featuring artist in residence Katey Brunini’s work, including a 1,300 ct. opal Robotic Heart necklace that lights up with LED technology

By the time I peeled myself out of bed before dawn on Friday morning to catch a car to the airport (a car that never arrived, by the way, so there I was scrambling for a taxi), I was toast. Art Basel had been serendipitous, fruitful, and utterly sleepless. But art, shmart—all I wanted to admire was my own bed!